Fathers are essential to the flourishing of our country. Having a father in the home dramatically reduces a myriad of harms. Children with fathers in the home, for example, do better in school, have better health outcomes, and are less likely as adolescents to carry guns or deal drugs or end up in prison, among other beneficial effects. Fathers also protect their children from becoming vulnerable to other increasing threats today, such as human traffickers. Particularly with the increased amount of time children have been spending online because of COVID-19 and virtual learning, traffickers are preying on America’s children through the Internet at alarming rates. Fathers are the ones on the front lines in protecting their children from these threats. A father in the home also protects children from other social harms.
Unfortunately, there is a father-absence crisis in America today. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.3 million children, one in four, live without a biological, step-, or adoptive father in the home. Consequently, there is a “father factor” in nearly all social ills facing America today. Many people believe that family structure doesn’t really matter, as long as children are cared for and loved by someone, anyone. However, research on father absence shows that the old adage “Correlation does not imply causation” does not apply to the effects of father absence on children. In other words, according to absent-father statistics, father absence is to blame for many of our most intractable social ills affecting children.
We have much evidence for this. For example, a study of 835 juvenile male inmates found that father absence was the only disadvantage on the individual level with significant effects on gun-carrying, drug-trafficking, and co-occurring behavior. The study’s authors found that individuals from father-absent homes were 279 percent more likely to carry guns and deal drugs than peers who lived with their fathers. Research by Sara McLanahan at Princeton University found that boys are significantly more likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30 if they are raised by a single mother, even after controlling for differences in parental income, education, race, and ethnicity. Research on young men suggests they are less likely to engage in delinquent or illegal behavior when they have the affection, attention, and monitoring of their own mother and father.
Daughters depend on fathers as well. One study by Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona (et al.) found that about one-third of girls whose fathers left the home before they turned six ended up pregnant as teenagers, compared with just 5 percent of girls whose fathers were present throughout their childhoods. The research on this topic suggests that girls raised by single mothers are less likely to be supervised and more likely to engage in early sex and to end up pregnant compared with girls raised by their own married parents. Other studies have found that teens without fathers are twice as likely to be involved in early sexual activity and seven times more likely to get pregnant as an adolescent. However, the study found that higher-quality father–daughter relationships were a protective factor against engagement in risky sexual behaviors.
The data speak for themselves that the lack of a father in the home leads to extremely detrimental outcomes for children, increasing their risk of dangers such as drug use, crime, incarceration, teen pregnancy, abuse, and poverty. Meanwhile, the simple presence of a father in the home strongly protects children and youth from such social ills.
The data are so clear on the importance of fathers for the good of our children and flourishing of our society. So what are we doing about it? It seems much of our country’s resources are currently directed more toward addressing the effects of social harms on the back end. We spend an enormous amount of our federal budget on child welfare, the costs of incarceration, juvenile-justice programs, poverty-relief efforts, crime reduction and law enforcement, and drug- and substance-abuse programs. In short, we spend most of our money on rehabilitation efforts for the ills borne out of fatherless homes. We need to focus more on equipping and mentoring men in our country to be fathers, and on adopting policies that encourage and incentivize fathers to stay in their homes and with their children, rather than on the cost-intensive work to rehabilitate fatherless children on the back end.
This does not mean that we should stop or curtail our investments in important rehabilitation efforts and responses to social harms. But we shouldn’t just accept the sad current state of affairs in our country, in which such a high proportion of homes and children are without fathers (remember: one in four). Our public policies should focus more attention and resources on programs to train and teach the young men in our country to be fathers. On programs to help struggling fathers and unstable families, by mentoring them and providing the support needed to help families stay together. On programs to help dads stay in the home. The National Fatherhood Initiative, founded in 1994, is doing great work to these ends. Their training offers one successful, evidence-based model that could be used and replicated.
This is a lot to do, and much of it will involve policy-makers and other such figures. But there is one thing we can all do: encourage and support the fathers in our own lives. The protective role they play for our children and for the overall flourishing of our society is vital. And fathers today are facing greater challenges than ever, with ever-evolving threats to their children, such as online child exploitation. Fathers need our support and encouragement. And if you are a father, don’t despair or give up. You are doing more for your children than you know, simply by being present in their lives.